Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blessed are the caregivers

I seriously don't know how they do it.

I had an extended visit home for the holidays so I could spend a little more time with Dad. Things continue to deteriorate. He's set up on the first floor now so he doesn't have to deal with stairs, and he needs a LOT of help walking.

I pitched in during the weekend when his regular caregiver (the paid one, as opposed to his wife, who's there 24/7) wasn't there, and it was tough, tough, tough. I don't even want to go into it.

But I was trying to take a zen-like approach to the whole thing. Reducing expectations, being prepared for anything, and letting go of the past and how things were or should be.

As always, he continues to smile and be good natured, which is a huge blessing, if you believe in that sort of thing. And there continues to be a glimmer of recognition there in his eyes, though he can't really speak.

And I continue, for whatever reason, to be fairly emotionally detached from the whole thing. I think I'm a good compartmentalizer. I think that's maybe frustrating or curious for other people, but it seems to work for me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I've got a book deal!

Phase One of the book (the all by myself phase) is officially over. Today I signed a deal to have the book published. The details can be read over at the High-Performance Communication blog.

It's a nice way to end the year. I'm feeling very good about the content. Just finished one last sweep -- Draft 5 -- through the thing. I'm amazed I still find things to tweak even after almost 8 full months with the thing. But on the other hand, it's a good sign that I'm not sick of it yet.

In fact, I really, really like it. With each draft I'm more convinced that I've got something really good here. This last pass was just to make sure the tone is right. I want it to be insightful but fun. I want it to have a consistent voice -- one that doesn't wear out its welcome with the reader.

And I expect that with some fresh and professional editorial perspective, the edits have just begun.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Open wide, gift horse!

I've never been particularly good with the business gifts. The holidays always seem crazy enough without budgeting the time and money to come up with a handful of additional presents.

But this year it seemed kind of important. Three brand new clients helped bring in a good chunk of my total revenue, and I felt genuinely grateful and wanted to thank/acknowledge them. Which is exactly how and why gift giving should be done.

But once I started, I found it hard to stop. What about the other clients? The ones who have been around for a while but who maybe didn't generate a lot of work for me this year? Do I stiff them in favor of the shiny new thing? So I got them gifts as well.

Then it occurred to me: what about agents and casting directors? Oy. So I included them, too, albeit at a lower price point, as the acting income wasn't a huge percentage of my total income this year. Which sounds a little mercenary, but what the hell.

So I got lots of fun stuff -- mini-cupcakes (gluten free), my favorite chocolates (Scharffen Berger), organic snacks, gourmet pastas/sauces, chocolate covered pretzels, etc.

Today as I was making the rounds for the stuff that couldn't be delivered, it occurred to me that I hadn't been to Chicago's biggest commercial casting agency in a long, long time. Two months, to be precise (upon checking the calendar). I may have missed one audition opportunity due to vacation, but still that's a really long gap for a place I sometimes frequent 3 or 4 times a week. So much that we joke about getting me a cot there to sleep on.

I asked one of my agents what was going on and she said she'd been submitting me regularly. So it's not the talent agent, it's the casting people not picking me. (And when I was there one of the casting directors said hi, and in my imagination it was a sheepish hi, full of guilt for them having blackballed me for whatever transgression I'd committed.)

Big mystery. But then just a couple of hours later I got a call for an audition there tomorrow. That helps, but I'm still kind of concerned. I'll see what I can find out tomorrow ...

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Me (again)

The girls behind the counter at Argo didn't notice. Nor did my Pilates, yoga or spin instructors. Nor even the eight or ten theater friends I talked to Saturday night.

None of them noticed my new glasses, which I thought were such a radical transformation from the ones I got earlier this year. (And regretted ever since -- hint: do not pick frames that blend with your hair. Contrast is better.) For reference:

So with these I go back to black. Like my old ones:

And a cool new shape. Everyone has the rectangular ones these days. These new ones are more modern, without being overly trendy (ie. 1978 yearbook photo ugly). And they've got a retroish Clark Kent thing going.

But I guess they're not as different as I think. Or maybe these people aren't all that observant. Or it's possible, just possible, that I am not as much the focus of everyone's attention as I think I am.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Oxford Street story

We stayed just off Oxford Street, near the Marble Arch tube stop (as well as the actual Marble Arch, seen here out the breakfast window on morning one.)

The whole visit I couldn't believe how busy it was. It was like Times Square times 11. It was like Michigan Avenue the week before Christmas, but much, much worse. A big wide sidewalk, yes, but with people walking (run-walking, really) 10 or 12 bodies across it didn't feel so wide.

I wrapped up the first day with a long, long walk to stay awake. And all the way back to the hotel I was seemingly swimming against the tide of humanity. It was unbelievable, and made me feel like a gen-u-wine yokel to see and be awed by so many people rushing about.

Yes, I knew it was the Christmas season. And yes, I could see there were a number of department stores on the street, but we weren't near Harrod's or the other retail icons I knew. It wasn't until my final night during a walking tour that we were told Oxford is not only the busiest shopping street in London, but in all of Europe, apparently.

So in addition to Selfridges and Marks & Spencer and H&M and a handful of other major block-long department stores, it has hundreds of smaller shops like the Gap and the Disney Store and Claire's.

Anyway, that first evening I am struggling up the street among the shoppers and commuters and (other) tourists when I come upon a crowd of people that is distinguished from the greater mass by the fact that it's not moving. They're three for four deep to the curb, peering at something in the street.

I can't see what's going on, but there's a big red double-decker bus that's stopped. Finally, through all the bodies, I see one that appears to be laying in the street. Gah! Someone's been hit! A pedestrian? A biker? What?

Then I see it's moving. Then I see it's wearing a bright neon emergency vest. Is a traffic cop down? Or is he/she trying to pull the remains of someone from under the bus's wheels?

Everyone is gripped by the action, unable to look away, without knowing exactly what's happening or what grisly sight may soon present itself. After a few tense moments, the bus rolls forward. Gah! Whoever's down there is being crushed!

Then, from the front of the crowd comes a collective gasp. But it's a gasp of relief. The neon vest is moving, seems to be getting up. What's going on? Then vest guy, on his knees, thrusts up two arms, and just over people's shoulders I can see in his hands ... a little white dog, merrily wagging his tail!

The crowd erupts in relief and cheers and laughter, able only to utter the obvious: "A dog!" and "It's a dog!" Then everyone briefly exchanges a look that says, "Okay, we're big-city folk and we sort of let down our defenses for a moment and got caught up in a heartwarming, one-of-a-kind event ... right. On our way, then!" And we all dispersed.

It was like a small Christmas miracle.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A London Christmas

Whatever happened to that infamous British reserve? The kind that makes you self-conscious in conference calls and emails, trying hard not to reinforce the notion that we Americans are a race of emotional over-sharers, with our all-to-ready familiarity and our bright enthusiasm punctuated with loud "HOW ARE YOU DOINGs" and "HAVE A NICE DAYs" and excessive exclamation points.

And yet it seems at Christmastime all that reticence and guardedness goes straight out the window.

Exhibit 1. For a Christmas party we were told that everyone will be dressing up as Santas. I figured that's an old English grift. I saw the Bridget Jones scene where no one but her was dressed in costume for the erstwhile "tarts and vicars" party.

But it turns out they were serious. Deadly serious. In fact, just that afternoon I stumbled upon a crowd of probably 500 Santas gathered in Trafalgar Square. Here is just a small cross-section of them, gathered at the base of Nelson's column, where just 48 hours before protesters were waving signs and urinating.

It was quite a spectacle, especially to hear them all chant in unison, yoga "ohm" like, long "HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOs." So that's when I knew the Santa thing was real. Apparently scaring up a Santa costume in England is as easy as finding a Starbucks here. So I relented and agreed to wear a Santa hat, along with a festive scarf of garland and a red tie. All invisible in this photo from my crappy iPhone.

Exhibit 2: At the other party we went to (this one on a houseboat on the Thames!), they had a keyboardist and horn player and proceeded to hand out 16 pages worth of Christmas carol lyrics. Who knew Good King Wenceslas had so many verses? And everyone was singing. Without any embarrassment or so much as a trace of irony.

They were as earnest as, dare I say it, Midwestern Front Porch Americans singing the National Anthem. It was a fascinating moment, hopelessly under-depicted here by, again, my crappy iPhone (come on next-gen iPhone 4, come out already!)

Maybe this is how they are when they're among(st) themselves, at a party made up mainly of natives and off the beaten path in a non-tourist area, where they can safely and fearlessly emote. It was quite touching.

Exhibit 3: Near the hotel, in Hyde Park, they had this huge carnival-like Winterland Wonderland festival running, 7 nights a week for 7 weeks. And it was swamped! They had a Ferris Wheel and other rides, games, ice-skating, open-air taverns, a giant inflatable disco, and hundreds of booths selling food and mulled cider and wine, and beer and crafts and other things.

It was an amazing scene, though I suspect for most natives it's like going to Navy Pier. Or Rush Street. Still, for us tourists it was kind of a blast.

Exhibit 4: Finally, they light up their retail streets like no city I've seen. We did an architectural/holiday lights walking tour that took us from the big commercial strips to the little out-of-the-way boutique-filled lanes, and it was pretty stunning, from the sublime to the borderline tacky.

Christmas in London. As Joe Biden would say, it's a Big Fucking Deal!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An American in London

Whenever I go to Europe I try to blend in and not look like a tourist. Sometimes I'm pretty successful. In France I've had numerous people come up to me and ask me directions -- in French, like I was a native.

Of course, the jig is up as soon as I open my mouth and reveal my very, very poor pidgin French.

England was an odd experience. On one hand, it felt very much like a foreign country -- the streets, the buildings, the food, the transportation, the general ways of doing things.

On the other hand, I spoke the language, albeit with an American accent. So I was quite clearly an American. Especially in the way I would sometimes give up trying to distinguish a 10 pence coin from a 20 pence or 5 pence (the size is no indicator!), and just hold my palm full of change out and let the clerks pick out the right amount.

But I stopped being self-concious about being from somewhere else since almost everyone I ran into -- store clerks, waiters, tube workers, museum staff -- was also from somewhere else. Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, India, Pakistan. Also there were tons of Americans visiting and living and working there.

The biggest concentration of actual British people were at a couple of parties we went to in some funky, out-of-the-way neighborhoods on the South Bank. Still, all of them were thoroughly accustomed to living and working with Americans, so I was in no way a novelty. People weren't stopping me and asking for my perspective on the fairness of US tax policy or my thoughts on the mid-term elections or anything.

In fact, there was a palpable feeling of kindredness. The shared heritage, the common bonds, the mutual sacrifice in war. I was especially touched that they devoted a significant space right behind the high altar of St. Paul's Cathedral to American soldiers and sailors.

Overall I guess I felt pretty comfortable. I visited Europe a lot in the late '90s and things were a lot more tense. America was on a roll and that sort of stoked the basic resentment to an even higher level. Between the problems we're having here and the worldwide economic crisis, I suppose we're all kind of on the same level for now.

Still there is something to be said for the challenges -- emotional, intellectual and otherwise -- of being in a more disorienting, unfamiliar environment. Travel shouldn't necessarily be comfortable.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

London's Burning

So there was some pretty wild protesting going on while we were there and we managed to stay one step ahead of (or behind) them the whole day.

First, we're heading down to Westminster and see tons and tons of cops. They're lining the major streets, they're setting up barricades, they're stacking up shields, they're waiting on side streets and on horses in courtyards ...

So we tour the Abbey and come out and see the action's getting more intense. Some of the cops are acting casual, but others look a little wired. We head up the street to Trafalgar square, and can see that thousands of protesters are streaming by. We watch for a few moments through the thicket of police.

Everything seems well under control and we see that they're students protesting some pretty draconian measures that will triple what they pay for tuition (which not long ago was free).

I recall seeing on the news that there had been protests before on this issue and so didn't think it would be a big deal. We wait for a gap in the crowd and cross through to the other side. I head to the Portrait Gallery for a couple of hours and when I come out, the streets are clear, though there are news or police helicopters buzzing overhead.

From there I take a long walk. (Trying to stay up so my body will re-set to London time, which it did after 30 straight hours awake.) I cross over Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank and can hear them rallying up the river. And more helicopters.

I continue my walk, heading back to the North Bank and to Coventry Square, where a coffee shop TV is showing live footage of protesters and police fighting. Interesting, I think. So I continue my walk up Regent Street ...

Now I'm back at the hotel, where we turn on the news to see that Charles and Camilla's limo was attacked on that very same street just minutes to an hour after I passed through.

Another fascinating coincidence. So we leave the hotel to head to a nice dinner of Pakistani food just up the street and around the corner. Outside our hotel we see a couple of cops with fancy electronic gizmos -- boom microphone, camera, etc. And a couple of other cops are very aggressively questioning two kids up against a wall.

Neat. So we go to dinner. When we come back, the area is swarming with cops. We look over our shoulder at a crosswalk and there are two columns of police in full riot gear standing behind us. The policewoman at the head of one column cheerily says, "Don't mind us, we're just waiting to cross like you."

When we do cross, we see a huge line of police halfway down the block and wrapping around our hotel. Cops everywhere -- we estimate about 150.

We go upstairs and turn on the news. Apparently protesters had been fanning out across the city causing trouble. And at Marble Arch, while we were at dinner, they got into more scuffles with the police, lit some fires and broke some store windows.

Insane. I sympathize with the students. It sounds like they're getting shafted, big time. But there were a LOT of violent people among them. And in spite of this graffito I found spray painted on a wall near Parliament a couple of days later ...

... the broken out windows of the Treasury Building not 10 feet away told a different story:

It was a fascinating time to be in London, and the very real issues they were struggling with sure made the ones being debated back home (exactly how big a tax break do the millionaires get) seem pretty trivial.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

London Town

The checklist

So much to say about London, yet so little energy to say it now. The big souvenir I brought back, aside from a little "Keep Calm and Carry On" plaque, is a head cold the size of Westminster Abbey.

At least it came on the last day, so I didn't let it crimp things too much. In fact, my forbidding of the crimping probably made it worse -- a trek out to Windsor in the cold didn't help matters much, not to mention an evening Christmas lights walk in the cold drizzle.

And apparently they don't sell zinc in their pharmacies there. (They probably know it's bogus, but my immune system gets fooled every time.)

Anyway, it made for a tough plane ride home. I asked for an empty seat next to me so I wouldn't have to inflict my virus on someone else, but no such luck. (Unlike the flight out, which was less than half full -- I actually laid down for a while across three seats, though I didn't sleep. I stayed up a full 30 hours, and wasn't even that tired!)

So I went through three packs of kleenex and on the descent I felt like the guy in the vise scene in Casino, where Joe Pesci pops the dude's eyeballs out.

Think I'm going to get some soup, catch up on some Daily Show, and try, try, try to stay up 'til 10 (4 am London time). For some reason I always find the jet lag worse coming this direction. It usually takes several days to get over.

At least I'm home. Of course, within 15 minutes I rubbed my eyes blood red from the itching. Check off London and Alaska as two places where my allergies would be much, much better ...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cover Girl

This is the little cat that was the inspiration and poster girl for the one-act plays I wrote and put up a few years ago.

Wow, five years ago, actually. Hard to believe.

Anyway, she was a good kitty. She couldn't help it that she had only the one eye. And me being squeamish, I admit I had the designer re-touch her eyehole for aesthetic purposes.

Poor Leona died suddenly the other day. Strangely, she's the second one-eyed cat I know who met an untimely death in the past few weeks -- a friend of mine, who actually performed in this same show, lost her own one-eyed cat in a fire. So sad.

Goodbye, kitty. As much as I harassed you, you were good. And you always looked smart in your little tuxedo.

Monday, December 06, 2010

That certain feeling

I had this audition last week at a photography studio I hadn't been to before, so I didn't know the people there. And I went in and did my usual thing -- I was courteous and friendly, if not super-warm and enthusiastic and making promises to have dinner and babysit their kids someday and go on vacations together (which is about how I presume it typically goes for the innately gregarious).

I'd had a super-busy day (working away in my quiet office away from the humans) and I got there toward the end of their casting session and there were a couple of other actors there who, to me, seemed insanely enthusiastic and boisterous and loud and laughing and joking and making conversation and talking about their lab coats (some actors have their own lab coats for medical roles, which this was) and it was all very ... annoying?

So I said my hellos and I went to my mark and I gave them the three or four quick poses and expressions they asked for and that was it. I said thank you and goodbye and headed back out as the other guys were still back there yucking it up.

At first I thought, I guess I should be doing that. And then I thought, no. This is a business and there's a line there and it's usually good to err on the conservative side of being overly chatty with the people who have to see 20 or 30 or 50 of you that day.

And I also thought, "I bet I got that." I really did. I just felt as soon as I hit the mark and did my work that I knew exactly what they wanted and how to give it to them. I've played a doctor (yes, ha-ha, on TV) at least a half-dozen times now, and it's the same basic thing: authority, warmth, confidence, caring.

So my agent called a couple of days later and, yes, I got it. There you go. Shoots tomorrow.

Sometimes ya just know. Ya know?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

London Calling

The great shame of my life -- well, one of them, anyway -- is that I've never been to London. I've been to Bratislava (Slovakia) and Avila (Spain) and Zandvoort (Netherlands) and Etretat (France), but never to London. I guess I only go places where I don't speak the language.

Though that reminds me of the old line about the U.S. and Britain being two countries separated by a common language.

So I'm remedying that. Sort of a last-minute booking, though a trip in general that has been a long time in planning. The airfare was ridiculous (at least compared with 1990s prices, which was the last time I traveled widely overseas), but the hotel is F-R-E-E free, as K's gonna be out there on business.

As with Alaska, I figured I can't afford not to go! Plus, with the season and all, it should be a really cool time to be there -- a Dickens Christmas!

So I'm excited. And intimidated, for some reason. Other than Mexico a couple of years back I haven't been to another country since 2001. Ridiculous!

Three things I will NOT be doing are the wax museum, the changing of the guard and the Eye. Other than that, everything's on the table. Yippee!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

I think I shall never see ...

... something as beautiful as this tree.

It's my favorite. It's at the lakefront, just south of Belmont Harbor. I can't say I care much for it in the summer -- the foliage is no great shakes. But when the limbs are bare ... oh, my. Spectacular.

It's looks the kind of tree Pixar or the people behind the Wizard of Oz would conjure up -- all multi-armed and humanlike. Or maybe Van Gogh, with those swirling masses of branches. Or maybe it's some mythological god-beast that hurls big balls of fire.

I just love it. And I haven't seen another tree like it.

Today I was reminded to make sure I appreciate every moment it has left. See, it's an ash tree. A green ash, I believe. And they've been under attack for a decade or so now from the emerald ash borer beetle.

This morning a crew from Streets & Sanitation showed up right in front of my place and proceeded to cut down two massive old trees ...

... one of them maybe three feet thick at the trunk and 60 or 70 feet high.

And by noon they were gone. Cut down to the stumps and all the branches hauled away.

These guys were good, I'll give them that. Mighty efficient at their murderous task. No damage to any property, even as the giant branches and pieces of trunk thundered to the ground.

I assumed these were ash trees, but I'm not sure they were, actually. They may have been locust trees. Maybe they were just old and dying. I know the smaller one lost a pretty huge limb a year or two ago in a summer storm. And in looking at the cross-cut sections of the larger one's trunk I saw it had a pretty big hollow area running upward from the base. That can't be good.

Either way it's sad. I'll be getting a lot less privacy next summer (though probably more sun). And it all reminds me that my favorite tree's days are numbered.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dr. Robert

Actually, not a doctor this time. At the last minute they changed things up and made me some kind of tech design guy. (Thus the ludicrously coiffed hair.)

A friend of mine snapped this photo. She's working a medical-related trade show this week and came across this signage at one of the booths. That was fast -- we just shot the thing a month ago. And they had to CGI me breaking through that background.

So yeah, not a doctor. But I did have an audition today, finally, in which I played a doctor. And got called for another audition tomorrow, but I THINK I have a conflict with the shoot date. We'll see about that.

Anyway, hope that means things are turning around for December.